Where Value and Luxury Disney World Meet
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort
Maybe everyone is attached to the place they stayed when they visited Disney World for the first time. After learning of the Disney Swan Resort renovation of the guest rooms, I knew we had to return to see how it fares against the high-end options around the Walt Disney World Resort we have tried.
Our first trip as a family was in 2011 when I was six months pregnant with our five-year-old in tow. We decided, like many people, to cash and some Starwood Preferred Guest points and stay at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort for a few nights on our way to grandma’s.
My daughter began a saying during that trip that we still repeat when we see the Michael Graves building: “Where the swans looks like swans and the dolphins look like catfish.”
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort is not an official Disney World hotel. It’s fair to say they are the most Disney of the non-Disney hotels, but they are Starwood properties specializing in business conferences and meetings. The Swan corresponds to the Westin brand while the Dolphin is considered a Sheraton property.
Rooms at the Swan and Dolphin require 10,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points per night, though, of the two, the Swan is smaller and much nicer. If you are paying in dollars, the Swan and Dolphin are priced typically between $150 and $300 per night.
The Swan location
The Swan location is flawless, as guests can easily walk to the back entry of Epcot near the France section of the International Showcase, and water shuttles are available to Hollywood Studios.
The best perk is that the Swan and Dolphin are adjacent to Disney’s Beach Club, Yacht Club, and Boardwalk, giving Swan guests numerous dining options on foot. Families can rent a surrey to pedal around the circular path connecting all the hotels, though there is one bridge that you may need to get out and push a little.
Our favorite destinations include the Flying Fish Café in the Disney Boardwalk and Beaches and Cream at the Beach Club for ice cream and burgers.
It is very easy to catch the Hollywood Studios fireworks every night from the Swan’s fountain outside the front entrance. Epcot’s fireworks can be seen from the back of the hotel.
It’s the most central location in all of the Disney resort, though the Magic Kingdom is a good bus ride away.
The Disney Swan Resort Renovation
The Disney Swan resort renovation started with the rooms. They received a complete makeover that was very needed. We won’t dwell on the past when there is a new beginning.
The best rooms are the Deluxe Family Rooms, offering a sitting area with sofa bed. Some of these are corner rooms with fantastic views of the Dolphin and Crescent Lake while others have no view to enjoy.
The shades of blue, white, and gray dominate the new décor accented with cheery primary color art. The bathrooms have been fully upgraded to resemble a new Westin property. The rooms come with a mini fridge and a small Mr. Coffee machine.
There were still signs of the old when I asked for bedding for the sofa. The torn blanket that arrived was one of the paper-thin, polyester-style blankets made in the ‘70s. I called and requested one of their Heavenly Bed duvets, and all was well.
The Swan and Dolphin’s Disney amenities are nearly identical to the Disney resorts, with two distinctions: no free airport transfers via the Magical Express and no Magic Bands mailed to guests (nor are they used as room keys or charge cards). And, annoyingly, the resort does charge a daily self-parking fee, unlike Disney resorts, so work that into your transportation budget.
Given that so many great restaurants are reachable by foot, this is one resort I would say is worth the car service instead of a car rental.
Fast Passes and Magic Bands for Swan and Dolphin Guests
The best bonus is that Swan and Dolphin guests are treated like Disney resort guests with the same 60 days prior to check in to book their Fast Pass reservations online at My Disney Experience.
You must link your Swan confirmation number into the My Disney Experience account a few days prior to ensure the system properly recorded it. I had a technical challenge and upon calling the hotel, I was impressed that there was a special voice prompt for this feature; the staff member who answered helped me instantly.
Magic Bands are fantastic and recommended when visiting the parks. Swan guests must buy Magic Bands on their own for entering the park and storing Fast Pass information. Buy them online or at any Disney store at the airport or hotel; you can link them to your my Disney Experience account yourself.
Park Transportation at the Swan and Dolphin
As I mentioned, Hollywood Studios and Epcot are within reach by foot, though a decent walk for non-urban dwellers. Boat shuttles launch in between the Swan and Dolphin to provide water transport to both parks. The Swan and Dolphin also use official Disney Buses, and they run continuously every 15-20 minutes to the various parks, Disney Springs, and the water parks.
On our first trip to the Swan we were frustrated by how long we waited for the bus for the Early Magic Hours at Magic Kingdom and hopped into a cab. On our recent trip, we experienced great karma, and the bus to the Magic Kingdom pulled in as we arrived at the stop, and our return trip that night was effortless.
The Swan and Dolphin Restaurants
The Swan and Dolphin each have restaurants at every price point. The Swan’s signature restaurants are Kimonos, a Japanese restaurant that offers sushi and late-night karaoke, and Il Mulino, the New York-based Italian restaurant.
The most surprising restaurant at the Swan for me was Garden Grove. Garden Grove offers a character meal on certain days, so we had always avoided it. We went for the breakfast buffet on a day that was not offering a character experience, and it was, hands-down, my favorite breakfast on any Disney vacation.
The buffet was exceptional and included an all-you-can-drink fresh pressed juice station with three different fruit and vegetable blends. I think between me and my two children there were fourteen empty juice glasses. Call it our Disney detox.
Made-to-order omelets, hot cereals with every possible nut and seed for garnish, pastries, and bagels fill out the rest of the offerings. The Swan also has a Java Bar, a coffee kiosk which also offers the same fresh juices and pastries. The Dolphin features what Disney World resorts call “quick service” restaurants. Pikabu serves casual fare cafeteria-style, and an ice cream shop always draws crowds.
Blue Zoo at the Dolphin
Todd English’s signature restaurant Blue Zoo focuses mainly on fish. We ordered the house specialty, dancing fish, but it wasn’t until we left that we saw fish dancing, slow roasting with pirouettes, on display.
The dancing fish of the day is filleted and deboned tableside, and it was exceptional, making my miso-glazed mero good but pale in comparison. The dancing fish side items were also outstanding: celery root purée and the ever-present Todd English ingredient, figs.
Dessert was incredibly memorable, worthy of its own film: a chocolate globe, concealing vanilla ice cream underneath, is stacked on a tower of chocolate torte and cinnamon apples. The server pours hot chocolate sauce on top as the globe melts before your eyes.
You will not feel like sharing with your sweet spouse who you usually are so generous with, so I suggest you get your own.
The dinner was definitely one of our favorites at Walt Disney World for a good meal. I would rank it at the top with California Grill at the Contemporary Resort and Capa at the Four Seasons. Our children were at the nearby Camp Dolphin happily watching Big Hero 6.
Free Kids’ Club at the Swan and Dolphin
The kids club, Camp Dolphin, offers two free complementary hours for adults who order entrées at either hotel’s signature restaurants or receive a spa treatment of sixty minutes or more.
This is the only free childcare option in the Walt Disney Word resort for a parent’s date night dinner, and this applies to all dinner guests even if you are staying elsewhere.
The kids’ club was straightforward and fell short in programming compared to other full-service resorts we visit. It’s definitely a place for kids to watch a movie, play video games or draw while the staff text on their phones. Camp Dolphin’s daytime program may be more structured and involved.
My kids tolerated the evening just fine, regardless, and produced several colored sheets of Disney characters with loving messages to us, so it certainly wasn’t a bad experience.
The Swan and Dolphin Pool Areas
The Swan has its own pool immediately next to the building, but if you’re willing to walk a few more yards down the sandy path past the playground or the Swan paddle boats, you’ll be rewarded with an excellent resort pool at the Dolphin that walks the line between family and adult fun very well.
Everything is here: beautiful waterfalls, water slides, caves and grottoes, sleek communal bungalows that offer poolside service, and kiosks to rent large kid inflatables.
We spent one leisurely day at the pool bungalows chatting with a lovely couple from Miami while eating each of our children’s leftover grilled cheese crusts. They had season passes to Disney World and stay at the Swan every few months because of its pool. They said they have tried every resort and that this one is their favorite.
Swan and Dolphin Fitness and Spa
The Dolphin has a Mandara Spa, the same company that the Loews Universal resorts use and the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. Both resorts have a a fitness center, and there are jogging tracks, tennis courts, volleyball courts, and swan paddle boats to rent in Crescent Lake. Active adults have plenty of options for exercise. The Swan offers the Westin fitness amenity of loaner sneakers from New Balance, so that you can add a workout if you didn’t pack gym shoes.
The Swan is a value choice for luxury travelers
The Walt Disney World Swan is not a luxury hotel, but within the Walt Disney World Resort, the rules change. I don’t make my opinion secret that service at the Disney operated hotels is very hit or miss. The Swan staff is trained adhering to Starwood standards set higher than those in Lake Buena Vista.
The dated lobby is next in the renovation, and will continue making the Swan an appealing choice. Combining the new room renovation with the existing strengths of the Swan resort (restaurants, pool areas, location, Disney amenities), I think it makes a solid choice for value if a Westin resort is luxe enough for you.
And if a family has the 60,000 Starwood Points to spare, there’s at least $1,200 of found money to be spent in other ways on a six-night Disney World vacation: park tickets, airfare, a VIP park escort, a couple’s half-day at the spa, or the smug satisfaction that you budget your Disney vacations well.
Although we were guests of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, these opinions are completely my own.
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